America at 400: 1619-2019

30. XII 2019

Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, the example it sets for the world as a land of freedom and equality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day. The seeds of all that were planted long before our official birth date, in 1776, when the men known as our founders formally declared independence from Britain[1].

America has always had a complicated relationship with its own history. The nation that was based on the ideas of enlightenment, and which gave us Declaration of Independence, The Emancipation Proclamation, May Day, International Women’s Day, Women’s Suffrage, Universal public K-12 education, The Marshall Plan, and Civil Rights Act, was also the birth place of some of the worst institutions of repression such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, systemic segregation, McCarthyism, internment camps, and mass incarceration. But this is not what makes America special; after all, there is hardly any developed country that does not carry historical baggage of some sort. Rather, it is the deliberate effort to make sure that the underlying tensions remain unresolved, which makes its position unique. America has turned its back on some of its best achievements, and never showed the courage (or desire) to completely distance itself from some of the worst practices of its past. The very same rights and freedoms that it continues to champion abroad, the US has systematically denied to a large segment of its population at home[2].

The American political landscape has always reflected this ambivalence. To this day, the underlying ideology and its reality remain trapped in the multiverse of causal entanglement whereby ideology creates social adversity, which requires ideological adjustments, which in turn reinforces the very same social adversity it was meant to contain.

Race as strange attractor: The Centaur-state and the four peculiar institutions

No one has captured the inner contradictions of America’s parallel history better than Loïc Wacquant. He sees the current social and political developments as part of a particular continuum outlined by the Four Peculiar Institutions against the backdrop of a reshaping of the capitalist state[3]. The essence of the dialectics of neoliberalism is condensed in its obsession with a smaller state (always, except when it comes to the riot police). The consequence of that obsession, according to Wacquant, is the building of a Centaur-state, liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom[4]. The superficial maneuver of imposing the functioning of free markets to life as whole, with a hands-off approach to the corporate sector and the upper echelon of society, is complemented by a state that is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class and status spectrum[5].

Wacquant’s deconstruction of the reconciliation of the inner contradictions of the Centaur-state puts the entire post-Reagan era of political carnivalization in perspective as the great neoliberal Aufhebung. The imposition of market discipline is not a smooth, self-propelling process: it meets with recalcitrance and triggers resistance; it translates into diffusing social instability and turbulence among the lower class; and it practically undermines the authority of the state. So it requires institutional contraptions that will anchor and support it, among them an enlarged and energetic penal institution[6]. Behind the clownish posturing of the new breed of political leaders resides a serious (and brutal) political reality and the more carnevalesque the politics becomes, the more repressive its penal system turns out to be.

This lays out the logic behind Americas intrinsic resistance to outgrowing its dark history and dealing with its legacy. This history begins in 1619, with the first slave ships docking the coast of Virginia. Its backbone is captured by the matrix of the Four Peculiar Institutions[7], which define the contours of the underlying carceral continuum. The most direct and intuitive perspective on the 400 years of America is offered by the second column of the Table: The root of it all is an insatiable demand for cheap labor; the history of America reflects this through the four transformational phases.

4Peculiar institutions

Four Peculiar Institutions

An unfree and fixed workforce was essential for the North American preindustrial economy. Slavery, as a relationship of domination, was used to fulfill a definite economic end: to appease the nearly insatiable appetite of the plantation for labor. The abolishment of slavery was more than anything a supply shock in labor. After slaves were formally free, a cheap and abundant workforce needed for the plantation economy had been eliminated. The true slaves deserted the South, attracted to looming opportunities in the North as the economy transitioned to its industrial phase, while the South experienced a decline (mechanization, urbanization …), which, when combined with cuts in immigration during WWI, resulted in an acute shortage of unskilled labor[8].

In response to these developments, capitalist industrialization and the plantation elite joined to demand political disenfranchisement and the systematic exclusion of former slaves from all major institutions. This was the period of Jim Crow rule. Backed by custom and elaborate legal structures, the economic opportunities were severely restricted (prohibited attendance of schools, churches, banished from the ballot box with a range of requirements, like residency, literacy tests, poll taxes or criminal offences).

The Ghetto was intended to have a prophylactic function. It was conceptualized as a separate Lebensraum for a group viewed as “physically and mentally unfit, unsanitary, entirely irresponsible, and undesirable neighbors”, while allowing, at the same time, to exploit their labor power (cheaply). In terms of its social functioning, the Ghetto was a logical sequel to slavery and Jim Crow.

The wedding of ghetto and prison: Hyperghetto

When the ghetto was rendered inoperative in the 1960s with economic restructuring and riots, which won blacks votes, the carceral institution offered itself as a substitute apparatus for the black community devoid of economic utility and political pull[9]. This was a way to prevent formation of a unified voice of discontent and convert the non-consuming segment of society into a profit center. According to Wacquant, African-Americans now live in the first prison society of history. The ghetto and the prison are now causally entangled — the two look the same and have the same function; they support and reinforce each other. The life in the ghetto almost necessarily leads to more criminal behavior. And in the prisons, which function effectively as graduate schools of crime, a “black culture” of outsiders is being reinforced by “professional” inmates, which eventually gets exported back to the street[10].

The ghetto and the prison are for all practical purposes indistinguishable, reinforcing each other to ensure the exclusion of African-Americans from general society, with governmental blessings. The prison should be viewed as a judicial ghetto and the ghetto as an extrajudicial prison. Taken together, these constitute part of a ‘carceral continuum’[11].

2019: Exit through the wormhole

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but mainly to ourselves. (Julian Barnes)

Capitalism creates crises, which it cannot wrest from. Recoveries from those crises are funded by social deficits, which grow bigger with each crisis. This became particularly severe during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. The Carceral state has been essential for the survival and sustainability of the neoliberal project and has had a triple role in that context: As a shock absorber and an insurance policy of capitalism against itself, as an engine of growth, and as a mechanism that reinforces its own toxicity. On one side, it offsets the unwanted side-effects of capitalism, while on the other, it creates new problems that reinforce the original ones.

The story of the Four Peculiar Institutions is not a chapter in American history; it is a book whose writing continues. It very much defines the present day (and future) of American politics, society and culture in general. It resides at the core of American culture and is the backbone of its history and economy.

Today more than ever before, America stands conflicted between two parallel histories and two atonal narratives, one starting in 1619 and the other in 1776. This ambivalence is deeply rooted in its constitution and it starts with the establishment of “progressive” America in 1776. Even before the US Declaration of Independence became an official document, the well-known statement from its second paragraph, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, was at striking discord with the social and political realities of the time as it appeared while slavery was in full swing[12]. The dual desire to define a new beginning without resolving the residual baggage of 1619 outlines the intentions not only to have two parallel histories, but more than that, to afford additional flexibility of the new Union. It remains one of the most striking examples of historical irony that the desire to save slavery was in the background of the American push for a new beginning in 1776. While the rest of the world was beginning to phase it out, slavery was still going strong on the “new continent”. America may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue[13]. As a consequence, the issue of race and institutions that followed had become the foundation of the country, as two parallel flows of history unfolded.

The two orthogonal narratives have persisted largely as a result of the ideology America chose to embrace. Endemic exclusion, and the attempted modes of its management, which in the USA assumed a particular institutional systematization, has been a residuum of intrinsic incompleteness of these ideological choices. The two parallel histories have coexisted for centuries unphased by each other, pulling the country in two different directions resulting in an irreconcilable cultural rift, which rose to unsustainable levels in this century.

However, as capitalism ran its course and the 400 years of its reign are facing unwind, these two histories have suddenly become cognizant of each other. The ghost of America’s past resonates with the present-day neo-segregationism located at the intersection of the two parallel (historical) narratives. A Current snapshot of America reflects the peak of the tensions caused by this ambiguity — it is the moment when the two begin to collide and desire to either reconcile with or annihilate each other. As the two historical processes (1619 and 1776) are beginning to intersect, the underlying socio-economic configuration is opening a wormhole that short-circuits the distance between them. This is the coming out of Dark America and its encounter with its progressive twin. What had been the centuries-long illegible process is becoming instantaneously legible in light of the intensity of this encounter. It is the moment of enormous clarity – the reconciliation of the underlying contradictions, which has been suspended for centuries and is now being resolved during their synthesis into a single narrative.

Wormhole

 

The 2016 wormhole

 

The divided self or the anti-psychiatry of the American experience

The resurrection of the 1619 timeline and the collision of two histories come hardly as a surprise in the light of the socio-political developments of the last five decades. The whole republican strategy since the 1970s has been a white supremacist dog whistle. And, since the population has been growing less white, their anxiety has grown accordingly and, with it, their susceptibility to right wing narratives, no matter how ridiculous they became or how much they played against material interest of their constituents. Ian Hany López offers the best summary of the last 50 years of that politics: Government coddles nonwhites with welfare and slap-on-the-wrist policing; meanwhile, government victimized whites by taxing their paychecks and refusing to protect them from marauding minorities[14]. It is no coincidence that since 1972, no Democratic candidate has ever won majority of the white vote. In turn, 90% of GOP supporters are white and so are 98% of its elected officials.

What continues to reinforce the antagonism of African Americans is not so much the fact that political discourse continues to be centered on blaming them for their social dislocation, but the absence of the Four Peculiar Institutions and parallel American history from that discussion — their role has been deliberately and intentionally downplayed or outright omitted from it. By blaming the victims, the existing political narratives, both centrist and right wing alike, are confusing cause and effect. Whatever blacks are being blamed for is not the cause of their precarity, it is a result of centuries of systematic adherence to particular politics and policies. The “missing” history, from 1619 to 1776, without which the last two-and-half centuries are illegible, provides the background for the synthesis of the four centuries of America.

The impossibility of a meaningful consensual discourse stems from the fact that we cannot experience other people’s experience — we can only experience their behavior, which might reveal something altogether different from what they are experiencing[15]. When observed from the outside certain behavioral patterns might appear as irrational and self-destructive with their rhetorical articulation being a valid expression of the inner distress and, therefore, meaningful only from within their own situational context.

When seen through the perspective of the longer (American) history, 1776 had been an attempt at a new beginning. Subsequent years and centuries represent normative period, the birth of new standards of normalcy as something that has come to hold the highest cultural value, what we teach our kids to become and what they pass along to their kids. But, what is the value of normalcy? During the 20th century alone, normal men had killed more than 120 million people and if left unchecked, they will kill more. After almost two and half centuries, we have come to realize that normalcy is overrated.

The only way to forget the traumas of history is to do away with normalcy and embrace madness in order to be healed and find salvation. According to R. D. Laing, one of the founders of anti-psychiatry, madness could become a transformative process — travelers could return from the journey with important insights, and may become wiser and more grounded persons as a result[16].

If the human race survives, future men will look back on our enlightened epoch as a veritable age of Darkness. They will presumably be able to savor the irony of the situation with more amusement than we can extract from it. The laugh’s on us. They will see that what we call “schizophrenia” was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds[17].

[1] The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine, August 18 (2019), Ed. Jake Silverstein

[2] Loïc Wacquant, Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh, Punishment & Society 3, 95 (2001) & Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, Duke University Press Books (2009)

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] The remainder of this section is, for the most part, the description of the functioning of the Four Peculiar Institutions entirely in Wacquant’s words and thoughts either as a direct quote (italicized text) or paraphrased (regular print).

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] The phrase “all men are created equal” has received criticism from elitists and traditional conservatives. Before final approval, Congress, having made a few alterations to some of the wording, also deleted nearly a fourth of the draft, including a passage criticizing the slave trade. At that time many members of Congress, including Jefferson, owned slaves, which clearly factored into their decision to delete the controversial “anti-slavery” passage. In 1776, abolitionist Thomas Day wrote: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

[13] By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy. (Nikole Hannah-Jones in The 1619 Project)

[14] Ian Hany López, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, Oxford University Press (2015), and Race and Economic Jeopardy for All: A Framing Paper for Defeating Dog Whistle Politics,
http://www.ianhaneylopez.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/race_and_economic_jeopardy_framing_paper.pdf

[15] R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience, Harmondsworth: Penguin (1967)

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid.

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